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asylum seekers

Sometimes 20, Sometimes 30 - It’s normal for refugees to live in small flats with up to 30 people, who may all be replaced the next week. For survival, they live wherever job opportunities take them - Photograph: UNHCR

The Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign has condemned the detention of refugees and asylum seekers outside the UNHCR offices in Kuala Lumpur.

Activists at a vigil in solidarity with the people on the boats, Penang 22 May 2015

Najib spoke of respecting “our common humanity” with desperate migrants but it is not clear how last night’s raid on asylum seekers lives up to that ideal, says the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign.

We have news that Malaysian authorities mounted a major operation at around midnight last night in Bagan Dalam, on the mainland of Penang, rounding up some 80 people, including 60 refugees/asylum seekers including women and children, herding them into lorries, and taking them away.

It is unclear what has prompted this operation. On the world stage, our prime minister is telling the global community what a generous and welcoming place Malaysia is for refugees and has pledged to take 3,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years.

Meantime, the 150,000 plus registered refugees and asylum-seekers already here have long had no rights (including no right to work) and are horribly vulnerable to arrest, extortion, detention, deportation or worse.

In Bagan Dalam, Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims have found a home, albeit unprotected. Many have been here for 20 years and more. Families live together, interspersed with the local community, and some of the children have been born in Malaysia.

These are Rohingya who have fled the horrors happening in Arakan state in Myanmar, or others from Myanmar fleeing intolerable abuses, persecution and threats to their lives. Having survived a journey that for many has included time in the horror camps of Thailand and Malaysia as documented/’discovered’ earlier this year, these men, women and children register with the UNHCR as refugees.

However, many will not have got a UNHCR refugee card yet, since the process of verification is a long one. While waiting for the card, people are described as ‘asylum seekers’, but for the police, immigration and other authorities, this so often seems to count for nothing.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, stood before the United Nations less than two weeks ago, and said: “For it is only when we transcend the silos of race and faith, only when we look at images of desperate migrants, the victims of extremists, and those whose lives are degraded by hunger and poverty – and see not strangers, but our brothers and sisters …. that we will act as our better selves. People around the world cry out for our help. We cannot – we must not – pass on by.” He talked of how “we must respect our common humanity”.

It is unclear how mounting major raids on already vulnerable families and individuals, including detaining and incarcerating young children, represents our common humanity.

Refugees and asylum seekers and migrant workers desperately need our support. We need to lobby strongly for the Malaysian government to respect, enshrine and enforce basic rights, including the right to work for refugees and asylum seekers, to at least give women, men and children some protection against the unscrupulous (including human traffickers).

Instead, we stand aside while thousands in our community live precarious lives, always at the mercy of the authorities and others, never secure, always on the edge of harassment and extortion, and in fear of arrest, detention and deportation. Last night’s raid is yet another chapter in this on-going saga.

For what? What are we trying to prove? That we do not welcome refugees or asylum seekers or migrant workers, that we do not recognise their humanity or the awful experiences that so many of them will have had earlier in their lives, that we see them not as brothers and sisters but as aliens who do not belong here, and whom we are content to harass and intimidate?

Clearly, if we are to give substance to our prime minister’s promise to the world, we need to transform our thinking, transform our reactions, and transform our responses so that we really do embrace every woman, man and child who is here as fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters, part of the global family.

We cannot simply “pass on by”.